THE EVOLUTION OF A PARK

Congress established Cumberland Island National Seashore in 1972 in order to “maintain the primitive, undeveloped character of one of the largest and most ecologically diverse barrier islands on the Atlantic Coast,” according to its founding legislation.

The National Park Service purchased most of the parcels on the island from private landowners, offering many of them a sweetheart deal: the Park Service would buy the land (in many cases, for millions of dollars), maintain roads, build docks and haul trash, and the families would be allowed to live on the island for the rest of their lives, or a set number of years, depending on the agreement.

That founding legislation also gave the National Park Service the power of eminent domain over the island, meaning they could legally condemn properties to better conserve and manage the national seashore. It’s a tool that the Park Service used to acquire several tracts on Cumberland Island from non-Carnegie landowners.

But two wealthy Carnegie families were allowed to keep their private land within the national park: the family who operates the only commercial entity on the island, Greyfield Inn, and another Carnegie heir who sold 88 acres to Lumar, LLC for development next to Sea Camp.

“The intention of the island’s founding legislation was that the Park Service would eventually own all the land on Cumberland Island,” says Cumberland Island National Seashore Superintendent Gary Ingram. “And that’s a good goal to have, especially when you’re trying to manage a wild place like Cumberland Island,” he said.

So far, the Park Service has been reluctant to use eminent domain to acquire the remaining 1,000 acres of Carnegie inholdings, but it’s a tool that the Park Service used to create the national seashore—and a tool they could use again to save it from development.

“I sold under threat of condemnation,” explains Ruckdeschel, who sold her parcel to the National Park Service in the 1970s and has rights to live on the island until she dies. “How equitable is it to now allow the wealthiest landowners to keep their property and actually develop the island while many others were condemned?”

BUY IT BACK?

Superintendent Ingram said if property owners were willing to sell the remaining private land, including the 88 acres next to Sea Camp owned by Lumar, LLC, he’s certain the National Park Service could find money from partner conservation entities to purchase it.

It would be a win-win: Lumar would be recognized and compensated for providing a critically important tract of land next to Sea Camp, and the park and the general public would have ensured the long-term protection of the seashore.

But Sam Candler says he is not interested in selling. “That property…remains in the hands of families who have had a long-standing and sensitive history of caring for the island; I believe that is fortunate for the island,” Candler wrote in an email to Blue Ridge Outdoors.

Instead, Candler and Lumar LLC have been pressing the local Camden County zoning board to grant them a variance that will allow them to subdivide the property. Camden County approved the request, much to the dismay of conservation groups and island observers, including Southern Environmental Law Center Lead Attorney Bill Sapp. Sapp has led a multi-organization appeal of the granted variance, claiming that none of the standards required for approval were met.

The appeal hearing was delayed several times until April, when Sapp, representatives of Lumar, LLC, Camden County officials, and the National Park Service began negotiations to consider a new zoning designation for the private properties on Cumberland Island.

PUBLIC LANDS, PRIVATE PLAYGROUND

So far, most of the negotiations are not aimed at stopping any current or future development but limiting the number of houses built per acre. Lumar, LLC wants a zoning rule of one house per two acres, which would allow for over 400 additional houses on Cumberland Island.

Superintendent Ingram hopes the negotiations can achieve a compromise that has the least amount of island impact.

“When the development footprint grows, there will be consequences. What the level of impact will be, I don’t know. If they’re building one structure out there, like a cabin, it’s far less than if they were building multiple 4,000-square-foot structures,” he said.

Kearns believes the negotiations are failing the taxpaying American public, who have already spent millions to purchase Cumberland Island.

She says that even the strictest limit currently on the table—one house per 25 acres—would still permit 40 additional developments within Cumberland Island National Seashore—more than twice the number of current residences on the island.

Kearns believes the negotiations are failing the taxpaying American public, who have already spent millions to purchase Cumberland Island.

“No matter what density the county chooses, the island will be permanently scarred and degraded long-term if development is allowed to proceed.”

Candler said the private landowners on the island, including his family, have been instrumental in preserving the island’s natural majesty, and for that reason, people should trust that relationship will continue. He said the island is big enough to accommodate additional development, with the less developed wilderness section on the north end of the island providing ecological benefits that allow for more homes on the south end without disturbing a visitor’s island experience substantially.

“I want to appeal to those elements of the public who have been on the island and who understand the historic and sensitive way that Cumberland has been sustained by a respectful partnership between the public and private sectors,” wrote Candler. “Most people who have been on Cumberland realize how large the island is. There are certainly areas which have houses on them, but the tremendous majority of the island will always remain without houses,” he said.

Superintendent Ingram has a different perspective.

“It’s a relatively small island. Any development has impacts. What level those impacts will have we don’t know right now. But it’s not just the human impacts of the development. There is also an environmental one too,” he said.